Europe 251: Battle of Abritus
Decius had not been emperor for a year when, in 250, the Goths launched a renewed invasion across the Danube. After a number of inconclusive clashes, Decius tried to run them down as they left the empire in mid 251, but was defeated and killed at Abritus. Victorious, the Goths made off with the vast sums of gold traveling with Decius—possibly the entire imperial treasury—contributing, along with the plague that had arrived in Rome almost simultaneously, to the virtual collapse of the Roman financial system.
Sep 249–Jun 251 Principate of Decius▲
After overthrowing Philip the Arab in 249, Decius was recognized as Emperor by the Senate and set to work strengthening the Roman state. Besides improving the road network and infrastructure, Decius ordered all non-Jewish subjects to sacrifice to the Roman gods and the Emperor in January 250, provoking a clash with Christian doctrine that culminated in the Decian persecution of Christians. In 251 Decius made his son Herennius Etruscus co-emperor, only for both of them to die fighting the Goths later that year.
?? 250–Jun 251 Decius’ Gothic War▲
In 250 the Gothic king Cniva led an army of Goths and Carpi into the Roman province of Moesia, crossing the Danube at Oescus (near the south eastern corner of Dacia). The invaders split into two columns, with the one under Cniva attacking Novae and Nicopolis ad Istrum and the other column advancing on Philippopolis in Thrace. The Roman emperor Decius responded to the threat and drove Cniva from Nicopolis, but was unable to prevent the two Gothic columns combining to sack Philippopolis.
Apr 250–?? 270 Plague of Cyprian▲
In around Easter 250 a new plague—possibly a viral hemorrhagic fever like Ebola—appeared in Ethiopia and soon spread to Egypt, devastating the population of Alexandria. By mid 251 it was in Rome, where it reportedly killed as many as 5,000 people a day at its peak. Lasting for perhaps 20 years, the plague claimed the lives of the emperors Hostilian and Claudius Gothicus, compelled people to flee the cities for the countryside, and led to the collapse of trade and agricultural production. Among the few beneficiaries of the disaster was the nascent Christian church, which provided care for the ill and spoke of rewards in the afterlife.
In 250 the popular senator Julius Valens Licinianus seized power in Rome and proclaimed himself Emperor in opposition to Decius. However, his rebellion lasted just a few days before being suppressed, probably by the future emperor Valerian, and the usurper was executed.
251 Titus Julius Priscus▲
During the Gothic siege of Philippopolis in Thrace, governor Titus Julius Priscus allegedly colluded with the invaders and had himself proclaimed Emperor. According to Jordanes, Priscus and the Gothic king Cniva then engaged Decius in battle, with Decius’ son and newly-appointed co-emperor Herennius Etruscus being killed by an arrow. What happened to Priscus after this is unknown, but he was almost certainly dead by the end of 251.
Jun 251–Aug 253 Principate of Trebonianus Gallus▲
With the death of Decius at the Battle of Abritus, the Danube legions proclaimed their leader Trebonianus Gallus as Emperor. Gallus returned to Rome, reigning alongside first Decius’ surviving son Hostilian and then, when Hostilian died of plague in late 251, his own son Volusianus. Gallus’ rule was marked by plague, currency collapse, invasions by the Goths and Persians, and internal unrest, culminating in his death at Interamna Nahars in August 253.
Jun 251 Battle of Abritus▲
In June 251 the Roman emperor Decius successfully intercepted Cniva and his Goths near Abritus, Lower Moesia, as they withdrew north with plunder from the sack of Philippopolis. However, when he pursued the Goths through marshy terrain, Decius and most of his men were ambushed and killed—the first death of a Roman emperor at the hands of foreign invaders. Proclaimed Emperor by the survivors, Trebonianus Gallus quickly made peace with the Goths, paying them to withdraw from the Empire with their loot (which now included Decius’ substantial treasury).
251–270 Post-Decian currency crisis▲
From the time of Nero (54–68 AD) to Decius (249–51) the precious metal content of Roman coins had gradually declined, most notably with the silver content of the denarius/antoninianus falling from 98% to 41%. Following Decius’ death—and the possible loss of the entire imperial treasury—at Abritus, inflation went rampant, with the antoninianus plummeting by one-seventh to 35% purity in just the two years of Trebonianus Gallus’ reign (251–53) and continuing to fall over the next two decades. By the advent of Aurelian (270–75) the antoninianus had reached a low point of 2.5% silver—one-tenth of its value under Decius—where it finally settled until replaced by the aurelianianus in 274.